There already were good reasons to doubt the likelihood of Apple (AAPL) moving a significant percentage of its iPhone production to the U.S., even in the face of fresh political pressure to do so. A Thursday New York Times report provides fresh arguments.
It also shows just how much Apple, and perhaps some other U.S. tech giants dependent on Chinese manufacturing, have to lose if the trade status quo with China is disrupted in a major way.
In a lengthy expose that partly relies on confidential government records, the NYT reviewed the many subsidies, tax breaks and infrastructure investments that support a massive iPhone plant run by top Apple contract manufacturer Foxconn in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou. The factory is capable of producing 500,000 iPhones per day, and accounts for about half of global iPhone production.
Zhengzhou's government is said to have paid more than $1.5 billion to Foxconn to "build large sections of the factory and nearby employee housing," as well as develop needed roads and power plants. It helps cover energy and transportation costs, recruits workers and pays bonuses to Foxconn for hitting export targets.
In addition, the local government provided Foxconn with breaks on corporate and value-added taxes, and cut social insurance and other worker payments required by Foxconn by up to $100 million per year. And the customs centers overseeing Foxconn's operation are in a special "bonded zone" subject to different import and export rules than most of China, which makes it easier for iPhones to be sold to Chinese consumers.
It all makes for quite the public-private partnership, one whose scope makes the incentives provided to Carrier to keep an air conditioner plant in Indiana look quaint by comparison.
In some ways, the NYT story complements a 2012 report from the paper detailing how China is uniquely positioned to handle Apple's iPhone production needs in several ways that have little to do with labor costs. Among other things, it looked at the speed at which Chinese plants are able to "scale up and down" in response to order changes, the presence of various plants needed to assist with iPhone assembly and the number of industrial engineers and other technical workers available to Chinese plants.
Thus, while Apple -- according to a November Nikkei report -- has asked Foxconn and fellow contract manufacturer Pegatron to explore the idea of making iPhones in the U.S., the odds of any big production shift remain low. The Wall Street Journal reports Apple is also mulling the idea of manufacturing some products in India, where labor costs are often lower than those in China, but the report gave no details about what Apple is looking to produce, or how much of it.
A document held by SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son during a recent meeting with Donald Trump did appear to suggest Foxconn is thinking about investing $7 billion in the U.S. and creating 50,000 jobs in the process. But even that many jobs is a fraction of the number needed to handle iPhone production during peak months.
As the NYT points out, the many incentives offered by cities like Zhengzhou -- the result of fierce competition between local governments for investments from companies like Foxconn -- aren't guaranteed to last forever. China has begun placing a greater emphasis on building up its own tech companies as opposed to simply being a manufacturing hub for ones overseas, and in some cases has pressured local governments to cut back on subsidies.
With President-elect Trump having promised to get tougher on China with regards to trade and having already kickstarted a war of words with Beijing, the odds of a disruption to Apple/Foxconn's very favorable manufacturing arrangements has escalated. Given the extent of local government support for iPhone manufacturing, there's a lot that China could do to make life less comfortable for Apple without driving iPhone manufacturing out of the country.